Jake Shimabukuro is probably the world’s greatest ambassador for the ukulele, and it’s a role he loves. If you’ve ever been to one of his live performances and seen the way he reaches fans on a visceral level, there is no doubt that playing the instrument brings him great joy. It always has.
“I’m a big fan of the ukulele, so to see the instrument growing in popularity is very exciting!” exclaims Shimabukuro. “I never would have thought, growing up in Hawaii, that I would see the ukulele heading in this direction.”
Drawn to the instrument from the time he was a baby, his mom began teaching him to play as soon as his hands were big enough. “She sat with me when I was about four years old and began teaching me basic chords, trying to help me place my fingers and learn how to strum and have fun with it,” he says. “I fell in love with the instrument and it’s been my passion ever since.” But, he never expected it would be his life’s work.
“I never thought that I could do this [as a career],” adds Shimabukuro, who first hit the stage in high school. “I played this little coffee shop a few blocks from my house in Honolulu. I loved it, but I had a really shy personality. I was always comfortable playing, but as soon as I stopped, I climbed back into my shell.”
Fortunately, his passion won out and he outgrew the shyness. In 2006, a YouTube video of Shimabukuro playing “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in Central Park went viral, and that’s when his career took off beyond Hawaii’s shores.
Facebook of Instruments
Shimabukuro’s tour in support of his latest album, Grand Ukulele, exposed him to just how widespread the ukulele phenomenon has become. Ukulele players have an enthusiasm you don’t often see with other instruments. There are clubs and jam sessions all over the country, and many people bring their ukuleles along to his concerts —something that’s a little difficult even for Shimabukuro to explain.
“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “I used to joke around and tell people that ukulele is the Facebook of instruments. When you play it, you want to find ukulele friends, and have jam sessions. It’s a very social instrument. People don’t have egos with the ukulele —it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been playing; we are all just ukulele players.”
Shimabukuro says that, in almost every city he visits, clubs invite him to jam sessions. “I’m usually just in for one night, so I don’t get a chance. But once, in Toronto, I was there for two nights, so I just showed up. Everyone totally freaked out. It was pretty funny.”
Part of the popularity could be due to the wide range of music you can play on the instrument, and that’s another thing he does his part to encourage.
“I grew up listening to a lot of Hawaiian music, and that’s probably the music I’m most comfortable playing,” says Shimabukuro, who never saw barriers in the instrument’s limited range. “I love exploring and experimenting with different genres.” He plays everything from “Bohemian Rhapsody” to “Rolling in the Deep” to his own “Ukulele Five-O.” So far, he hasn’t come across a song he couldn’t work out on ukulele to his personal satisfaction.
“When I’m covering a song, I don’t want to just make it recognizable; I want to capture the spirit of the song,” he says, adding that one of his biggest challenges was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” “There were a couple times when I almost threw in the white towel. Like the line ‘thunderbolts and lightening, very, very frightening’ —for the longest time I could not come up with a voicing that I liked for that. There is so much going on harmonically that I thought there is just no way to express that on four strings.”
“I didn’t want to perform the piece until I was satisfied with every part,” he says. “Once I arranged it, I had to learn how to play it. It’s a hard song to execute physically, you know? Then, the arrangement evolved more. I found myself hearing different movements and harmonies.”